Shirley Cheechoo

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Shirley Cheechoo
Born 1952 (age 65–66)
Eastmain, Quebec
Occupation Actress, writer, producer, director & visual artist, chancellor
Spouse(s) Blake Debassige

Shirley Cheechoo (Cree: ᔒᓕᒋᒍ born 1952) is a Cree actress, writer, producer, director, and visual artist, best known for her solo-voice or monodrama play Path With No Moccasins, as well as her work with De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig theatre group. Her first break came in 1985 when she was cast on the CBC's first nations TV series Spirit Bay, and later, in 1997, she found a role on the CBC's TV series The Rez.

She was named chancellor of Brock University in July 2015,[1] the institution's first female and first aboriginal chancellor.


Shirley Cheechoo was born in 1952 in Eastmain, Quebec,[2] and grew up in Moose Factory and Hearst, Ontario. Shirley spent her early life on traplines with her parents and brothers, but at the age of nine was sent to a residential school, Shingwauk Residential School, now known as Algoma University College. At this school Cheechoo, like many other residential school survivors, experienced violence and abuse and was told that "her parents would die if she ran away."[3] After leaving school at fifteen, Cheechoo experienced problems with substance abuse, but eventually, she turned her life around and began to work in film and theatre to explore themes of healing and survivance post-trauma. Her experiences at a residential school and her road to healing are documented in her stage play 1991 Path with No Moccasins.[2]

Shirley attended art classes at the Manitou Arts Foundation during the summer of 1966.

The De-ba-jeh-mu-jig years[edit]

Shirley founded De-ba-jeh-mu-jig theatre, which developed out of the children's theatre. After starting the theatre company, partner Blake Debassige, a visual artist, served on the board of directors and as president of the board during the early years of De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig theatre group.

During her time at Debaj, Shirley fulfilled the role of artistic director, president of the board of directors, as well as fulfilling much of the administrative roles, actor, and playwright.

Shirley is the first First Nations woman to "write, produce, direct, and act in a feature length film from Canada".[4][5]


Shirley first gained national attention with Path With No Moccasins. Her directorial debut was with a short film called Silent Tears, which won several film festival awards for Best Short Film and was "screened at the 1998Sundance Film Festival."[4]

Her first feature film was Backroads, a journey into the harsh contemporary life of Cree women. The movie was financed and executive-produced by Offline Entertainment Group.[6][7]

Shirley realized that she could "ease a pain or raise an issue with her film work" and so dedicated herself to creating film by enrolling in writing classes, director's labs, acting workshops and film schools.[8]

Much of her art is based on biographical elements. Path With No Moccasins gave Shirley the opportunity to "speak about her life and the struggle to retain her identity, and Cree heritage".[9] Silent Tears chronicles the events of a "harsh winter trip with her parents to a northern trap line when she was eight years old".[9]

In order to promote Aboriginal artists, Shirley and Blake Debassige co-own Kasheese Studios art gallery. She is also the president of Spoken Song film production company and founded the Weengushk Film Institute on Manitoulin Island that will train, develop and guide independent filmmakers.[8]

Her artwork is inspired by Woodlands School, which is a concept given birth by Norval Morrisseau. Her art has been exhibited around the world, and her commissions include:

  • Christmas cards for UNICEF
  • Amnesty International
  • The Ontario Native Women's Association
  • The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto

Cultural work[edit]

She is a mentor to many in the Native arts community and one of Canada's most well-known and respected artists. She visits other communities and schools and holds workshops. On the topic of visiting schools to host acting and playwrighting workshops, Shirley has said

the kids that come into the theatre, into the drama workshops, are the kids that I pick. I feel that they need some kind of self-esteem, and drama does it. Anything in the arts gives these kids a lot of self-esteem ... the arts are really important for children and they're not taught in the schools

Shirley is concerned with Indigenous people's complacency with "small advancements and the slight changes that appear when it comes to equality and respect" and believes that "We must continue to fight in the most positive way to try and find a level playing field for Indigenous people to work, live, and create in the main".[8]

In February 2008, Shirley was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in the area of art by the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation.[10] She was also awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award in 2013 to recognize her commitment to education.[11]

Writings and appearances[edit]


  • Path With No Moccasins (1991)
  • Tangled Sheets (1994)
  • Your Dream Was Mine (2005)


  • Johnny Tootall (2005) Director, writer
  • In Shadow (2003) Director
  • Shadows in Deep Water (?) Director
  • Pikutiskaau (Mother Earth) (2003) Director
  • Tracks in the Snow (2001) Productor, Director
  • Backroads (aka Bearwalker) (2000) Director, writer
  • Silent Tears (1998) Director, writer
  • Moose River Crossing (2013) Director, writer[12][13]

Media appearances[edit]

  • M.V.P - Mrs. Lemonde (2008)
  • Christmas in the Clouds (2001)
  • Johnny Greyeyes (2000)
  • Backroads (2000)
  • Silent Tears (1998)
  • Song of Hiawatha (1997)
  • The Rez (1996)
  • Medicine River (1993)
  • Spirit Bay (1984)
  • Provided the illustrations for Tales the Elders Told by Basil H. Johnston


  • Best Short Film - Silent Tears
  • Telefilm Canada/Television Northern Canada Award for Best Canadian Aboriginal Language Television Program - Silent Tears (1998)
  • Best Director. Reel World Film Festival (Toronto 2000)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award in the area of art (2008). Given by the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, now Indspire.
  • CTV Fellowship Award
  • Eagle Spirit Award
  • Independent Filmmaker of the Year (Arizona International Film Festival) (2002).
  • Best Film for Johnny Tootall at the 2005 American Indian Film Festival.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Acclaimed native actor/director named Brock chancellor". St. Catharines Standard, July 16, 2015.
  2. ^ a b "Shirley Cheechoo Internationally Acclaimed Filmmaker/ Artist". Turtle Island Native Network. 2005-02-24. Retrieved 2015-10-26.
  3. ^ Wilmer, S.E. (2011). Native American Performance and Representation. Arizona: University of Arizona Press. p. 126. ISBN 9780816502745.
  4. ^ a b "Shirley Cheechoo". Whetung Ojibwa Crafts and Art Gallery. 2015-02-27. Archived from the original on February 27, 2015. Retrieved 2015-10-26.
  5. ^ "Moose River Crossing The Movie". Retrieved 2015-10-26.
  6. ^ Aleiss, Angela. "Making War Bonnets Old Hat: Native American Filmmakers are Forging into Hollywood with Projects Involving Real Human Concerns," Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1999.
  7. ^ "Shirley Cheechoo". National Museum of the American Indian. 2014. Retrieved 2015-10-26.
  8. ^ a b c Shirley Cheechoo, National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation[dead link]
  9. ^ a b Shirley Cheechoo, Art World of Sherway Archived October 31, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^ Shirley Cheechoo, Indspire
  11. ^ "Weengushk founder Shirley Cheechoo receives Diamond Jubilee Award". Manitoulin Expositor. 2013-08-23. Retrieved 2015-10-26.
  12. ^ "Doug Bedard Discusses Residential School Drama 'Moose River Crossing'". Indian Country Today Media Network. 2013-11-05. Retrieved 2015-10-26.
  13. ^ "Moose River Crossing (2013)". IMDb.
  14. ^ "Shirley Cheechoo - Awards". IMDb. Retrieved 2015-10-26.

External links[edit]